This year has been a fascinating one. We've seen new chocolate makers pop up with ever-increasing frequency. What's more it's never been easier to make chocolate at home - even if big business says we'll run out of chocolate (if you believe the "journalists"). But was does 2015 have in store for the fine chocolate industry and why should we be concerned more about the perception of the industry than any potential short-fall in mass-market cacao production?
Here are ten problems I see for 2015 and what needs to be done to prevent the recent progress made in the industry going into reverse:
One of the biggest disappointments of the year for me was ordering some chocolate from a new British chocolate maker which launched with a degree of local fanfare - only for it to taste like the worst of Belcolade. If their website mentioned that their chocolate was made with mass-market West African cacao (which I'm sure it was) then I would have it least been able to align my expectations accordingly. The same to for the chocolate's labelling. Just as with many other food stuffs chocolate makers should be forced to indicate, as best they can, the origin of the cacao. If it is blended then give us the information you have. It is from some big Dutch warehouse where cacao is piled up from various sources tell us the origins are unknown. Conversely, if you work directly with a farmer, a co-operative or other group then be proud enough to tell us. If you've taken support from Direct Cacao or other directly-traded group then also it would be great to know. Hiding behind vague terminology such as 'directly traded' without being willing to be publicly held accountable should not be acceptable in 2015.
The same can be said for remelters. If you 'simply' use couverture you should say so, perhaps not, necessarily, the company, but the producing nation. If you use an excellent couverture maker then be proud enough to say.
Another aspect that annoys me is the lack of choice on the high street. Even in London there is not a great deal of choice when it comes to 'bean to bar' chocolate - considering the vast range of makers there are around the world today. Even the popular chocolatiers don't offer a range of makers. I'd love to see these stores offer a range of chocolate from great makers from distant shores - it's not that difficult to acquire. The mark-ups are probably greater with remelted stuff and filled-chocolates, but consumers crave new and interesting chocolate made from the bean, as well as own-branded treats. At the very least it may bring people into your store.
I'd love to be able to walk into any of the chocolatiers which get a great deal of foot-fall and find new stuff I've never heard of - and I'm sure the general public will too. There are just far too few places to buy great bean-to-bar chocolate in London. And around the country you have to spend a great deal of time finding stores. I'd have to ask for Jonathan's distribution list to find interesting chocolate shops to buy from.
Being Taken For A Mug
When there is wide choice the prices people are forced to pay are ridiculous. Some of the chocolate Selfridges sell we have also sold and we know the wholesale costs. Charging customers three times, or more, the wholesale cost is unbelievable. With competition just being a click away it would be fanciful if we thought we could get away with it.
There is no point us 'fighting' for higher chocolate prices so more of that revenue passes to the growers and early-processors if all that happens is that larger retailers take more than their fair share.
Easier International Distribution
The costs of importing chocolate from the US to the UK are eye-watering. Even working with large companies in Europe the hoops that they want to go through are staggering. One Italian maker expected me to drive half way down the country to pick up a few hundred Euros worth of chocolate. A Spanish company were unwilling to help with shipping. North American companies are generally awesome when it comes to wholesaling chocolate, even on relatively small scales into Europe - they get commerce. Others, rightly or wrongly, don't produce enough to need to wholesale abroad.
The end result, and if I had time I would do it, is that we need more European distributors to import from the USA and abroad. There are some very good companies we work with, but they seem unwilling to stock very new brands.We need more choice in Europe - not least for choice's sake, but also to keep European makers on their toes.
Less Ethical Bull-Crap ...
... and more ethical honesty. It seems that if you stick a FairTrade label on your chocolate then you are instantly absolved of any requirement for engaged ethics. You can simply purchase FairTrade ingredients and you're automatically an ethical company. You may not actually know how much the grower gets for the beans. You may not actually know the farms where the beans are grown or have any idea about how the cacao is fermented. You've bought Fair Trade and therefore you're an 'ethical' company - rubbish.
It may take time and money to really understand your raw ingredients, the people that harvested the cacao and the early production processes, but if you want to call yourself 'bean to bar' or 'ethical' then you absolutely have to know as much about what you're selling as possible. It's no different than supermarkets not knowing that horse meat can be found in the 'beef' burgers. Ignorance is no excuse.
Give People The Information They Crave
At the chocolate fairs, exhibitions and shows I've been to it is amazing that how many people want to understand what 'industry people' determine as fine chocolate. They love tasting different types of chocolate and hearing about the general flavour profiles you can expect from different origins. They want to know how chocolate is made and are intrigued about the different forms of 'ethical' production. They're amazed with the difference between typical mass-market chocolate and fine chocolate produced in limited quantities. Retailers, wholesalers, producers and alike should spend more time educating people about these topics. If consumers don't know why it worth paying more for great chocolate, they'll just buy less of it, if any at all.
Journalists Need To Take The Industry Seriously
Let's be honest. 99% of 'journalists' that have written about chocolate in 2014 don't actually care less about fine chocolate - let alone understand what makes chocolate 'fine flavour'. Their sole focus to produce 'click bait' and earn advertising revenue. I would dearly love everyone that writes about chocolate to understand the topic, but there is absolutely no chance of this occurring. All those that are passionate about the industry can do is quickly and accurately refute any ignorance, untruths and miss-representations as they occur. I certainly try as do others. We do, however, need to step up our game.
More (Informed) Makers
HB Ingredients are doing wonderful things trying to get more companies and individuals making chocolate from the bean. Duffy also does great work with upstarts helping them choose equipment and source beans. Much of that work goes un-noticed. But my view is that we need a more concerted, organised and co-ordinated effort to provide information about sourcing equipment and ingredients and typical production protocols to consider when making chocolate. The Guild of Fine Chocolate and the Academy of Chocolate (both of which I am a member) do great work promoting the industry. But I'd love for a not-for-profit organisation to be an open-sourced repository for information. I'm sure there are many would-be makers scared of asking the likes of Duffy et al for information, but would be happy to download guides and supplier lists from the internet.
I, for one, have a wet grinder. But what do I do next? How can I 'jimmy' household equipment to separate the husks from the beans, how do I make nibs, and what do I need to think about when roasting the beans? What sort of sugar produces the best results at a reasonable price? What are the health and safety rules about home production?
I'm lucky that Duffy has volunteered to help with making chocolate and Marc Demarquette and Paul Wayne Gregory have offered to help with other skills such as creative tempering etc. But what about people just starting out? What hope do they have?
Poverty and Longevity
I'll avoid sounding like a stuck record on this - but far too often (almost exclusively) those that grow cacao don't earn enough to survive - if they 'go under' they don't have a relatively generous Welfare State as we do. What's more, when they give up producing cacao often we will lose fine flavour cacao with them - and forever.
But also there are a lot of people in the chocolate industry, from the growers, harvesters, early stage producers, ethical cacao bean suppliers, makers and even chocolatiers that don't actually make enough to continue in the industry. There are only a few chocolate makers that make huge profits - they tend to supply poor quality chocolate. At the fine end it is very difficult to make decent returns, purely because they have to spend vast sums acquiring fine flavour cacao and the knowledge and insights we demand.
Chocolate consumers just have to start rewarding the heartache, the blood, sweat and tears of growers. They have to reward the heavy investments by chocolate makers and they have to reward retailers that stick their necks out and risk their own money buying great chocolate that people have never heard of.
The Commoditisation of Chocolate
It pains me when I see great chocolate sold on price by Amazon. Great people spend hours educating customers about fine chocolate and then Amazon come in, after establishing which bars sell well and then cherry-pick a few items and sell at almost cost. Buying great chocolate should not be like choosing a replacement HDMI cable, a Blu-ray version of Frozen or a new watch. Although most cacao may be a commodity, sold anonymously, but fine chocolate is sold with a connection between the grower, maker and retailer. There is love and passion flowing up and down the chain. Chocolate needs to be stored correctly, I'm not saying Amazon doesn’t, but I'm sure they don't have had the sense of excitement when a new pallet of fine chocolate arrives as we do.
The fine chocolate industry has made remarkable progress this decade alone. We're approaching half-way and although I'm excited about the future, there is just far too much at stake to slap backs with gratitude. There is just far too much work to be done for any of that.